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Bronx Breakdown: A Living Wage Deal, Hockey at the Armory and More

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This photo, from St. Ann’s Church’s processional in honor of the Feast of Guadalupe held in December, has nothing to do with this week’s Breakdown, but it’s a great photo from our own Adi Talwar. Read on for more about today’s living wage deal, hockey possibly coming to the Armory, the relentless push by religious leaders to keep churches in city school buildings, Fordham’s hoops “powerhouse” and some good old-fashioned soul music. Let’s break it on down.

Spin for a Watered-Down Living Wage Deal
We’ll start with the big story of the day: Speaker Christine Quinn strikes a deal on living wage legislation. Everyone involved in this deal is positing the agreement reached today as an historic moment. But when you read between the lines, it’s clear that this legislation is nowhere near what living wage advocates set out to accomplish. In fact, it’s unclear exactly what it accomplishes.

While details are still forthcoming, we do have an outline of what the new living wage legislation will look like. It will require developers who receive substantial city subsidies (funding, tax breaks, etc.) to pay their own workers a living wage ($10 an hour, plus benefits, or $11.50 an hour, without) for work they do on the development projects they’re receiving the subsidies for.

Let’s break this down, Bronx Breakdown-style with the information we have.

Developers hire consultants, architects, engineers, construction workers and specialists and maybe some security workers. Those workers, with the possible exception of security guards, are generally paid a living wage already. They are also only being paid by the developers while the project is being built. In other words, these are temporary jobs.

Two years ago, the Related Companies, who won a bid to turn the Amory into an enormous shopping mall, sparred with living wage advocates who were demanding that they guarantee a living wage at the completed mall project. Related repeatedly said: We already pay all of our workers a living wage, but we cannot and will not guarantee that the tenants who rent space in our mall pay a living wage. Their reasoning was that it would be difficult to ask their retailers to pay employees more than they do right down the street. They also said if living wage guarantees were legislated than it would be a different story. But it isn’t legislated, so it’s a non-starter.

Still, because of fierce advocacy from community groups, especially the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA), and the backing of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and the Bronx Coucil delegation, the City Council killed the project. They cited other reasons. But the bottom line was that the project didn’t include living wage guarantees that community advocates wanted in exchange for use of a valuable community asset like the Armory.

The mayor and business community was stunned. It was the first time, the Council had voted down a Bloomberg-backed development project. Bloomberg vetoed the Council’s decision, but the Council happily overrode the veto and vowed to pass legislation that would guarantee living wage jobs at city-subsidized projects. (It’s important to note that Related was receiving anywhere between $50 million to nearly $100 million in city and state subsidies, mostly in the form of tax breaks and a deal on the Armory price tag.)

There was momentum for living wage legislation going into 2010, but it stalled in its first year. In 2011, it picked up more steam and the bill was altered to make exceptions for small businesses and to raise the threshold for when the legislation would kick in, to make it more palatable for Quinn who would determine whether the bill would ever see the Council floor. Hearings were held with arguments on both sides, including those who said similar legislation in other municipalities (like Los Angeles and San Francisco) did nothing to impeded development.

Throughout, the legislation continued to guarantee living wages for those who worked at completed development projects that were subsidized by the city.

And now, we have today’s agreement, which does not include any such guarantees.

Apparently, the bill will green light a pilot program that will create incentives for businesses willing to pay living wage. But however you look at it, this legislation falls short of its original intent.

You can tell just by reading the press releases from those pushing for the legislation.

Council member Annabel Palma, the head of the Bronx delegation, co-sponsored the legislation with Bronx colleague Oliver Koppell. In her press release Palma says that in tough times like these, “it is crucial for elected officials to come together in the name of real change. This hard-wrought agreement will help a number of New Yorkers secure jobs that pay a living wage.”

Notice she says doesn’t say that this legislation has achieved real change and that she only says it will help “a number” of New Yorkers get living wage jobs. There is nothing in there about guarantees or how many people will get better-paying jobs because of this. To her credit, she’s just telling the truth. Palma then quickly switches the subject to other legislation on the state and federal level.

In his press release, Stuart Applebaum, the head of the city’s biggest retail union and one of the most vocal supporters of the living wage bill, used more powerful language, but it’s still difficult to see what was accomplished based on his comments. His first paragraph is entirely dedicated to thanking elected officials and other organizations. Then he gets to the meat, saying, “We have achieved a key goal: a new policy framework that says all workers on subsidized development projects, including retail employees, should be paid a living wage.”

That’s nice. Everyone agrees we “should” pay workers a living wage. But just because we should, doesn’t mean we will. That was the whole reason why they introduced the bill in the first place.

It will be interesting to see how Bloomberg reacts to this. From what I can tell, the mayor doesn’t have much to gain by fighting this watered-down piece of legislation. It won’t affect the business and development community much at all.

Hockey at the Armory?
In his State of the City speech yesterday, Bloomberg talked about how the city would be issuing a request for proposals for redevelopment of the Armory. This came as a big turnaround from his earlier stance basically saying it would be a cold day in the Sahara before the Armory had another chance to be developed into something useful. He also said that there was interest in using the Armory for “recreational” purposes.

We know that the National Cycling Association wants to use it for velodrome and bicycling complex. But now we’re hearing that a group with serious financial backing wants to turn it into an ice hockey complex. I was thinking a basketball or indoor baseball complex might be more fitting for the Bronx, but I’m willing to listen. Something’s gotta go in there.

Religious Leaders To Keep Up Pressure
Dozens of demonstrators were arrested yesterday outside of Morris High School, where Bloomberg was giving his speech. They were protesting the Department of Education’s policy against worshiping at city school buildings during off-hours. After last week’s arrests, it’s clear these protesters are not going away anytime soon. More protests at other big events, including Quinn’s own State of the City speech are in the works.

Hoops ‘Powerhouse’ Loses Again
At one point, Bloomberg referred to Fordham University as the next “basketball powerhouse” in New York City. He obviously wrote the speech a couple of weeks ago after the Rams apparently peaked with a win over 22nd-ranked Harvard. Since then, Fordham has dropped three straight and now stands at 7-9 for the season. Oops. Maybe a little premature on that one, Mr. Mayor.

What You Should Do This Weekend
The O’Jays are playing Lehman Center on Saturday night at 8 p.m. Take a listen to the clip below. That’s just good grown folks music.

Like this story? Leave your comments below.

2 thoughts on “Bronx Breakdown: A Living Wage Deal, Hockey at the Armory and More

  1. HAILE RIVERA

    Say what you will but this is not such a major victory, except for those looking to receive campaign donations for 2013 from the business community.

    Why all the hype to then accept this “band-aid”? This proves once more how fast and easy our electeds sell out to the powers-that-be, or worst, to themselves.

    My concern is making sure that our local moms and pops businesses are not forced out by new businesses that are inside the Armory.

  2. Jay Shuffield

    It does look like spin when people who fought against the Armory development take the stage to support legislation that looks almost exactly like the Armory developer’s plan.

    There is one more moving piece that has been in the discussion, though. Mayor Bloomberg is supporting an increase in the minimum wage. That is, and always should have been, the primary focus. It will affect almost all low-wage workers, rather than just the very small number affected by City projects. And it doesn’t have the potential to put individual projects at a competitive disadvantage, as do requirements that only apply to projects receiving subsidies.

    Raising the minimum wage puts the expense on the corporations profiting from doing business in our communities, whereas the “living wage” legislation would surely be funded in large part from the City’s budget in the form of larger subsidies needed to make economic development projects viable.

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